The Spirits at the End of the World
Hitler, Superman, and Tarzan stand together at the end of the world. Sounds like a setup to a joke, no? Well, not exactly. This scene appears in Leonora Carrington’s Opus Siniestrus: The Story of the Last Egg, a short play published by the artist in 1969 and staged as a dramatic reading at Gallery Wendi Norris last week. In a spot perhaps not comparably strange, but certainly out of the ordinary, seven actors voiced the motley crew of unsightly stragglers present as the world withers.
Wendi Norris, whose brick-and-mortar space is in San Francisco, has set up a pop-up show of Carrington’s work in an empty storefront on Madison Avenue, and it was in this context that the aforementioned characters appeared. The gallery managed to achieve a believable exhibition space, despite the linoleum flooring and plate glass windows (a transition which calls attention to how much like the art gallery the department store has become––and vice versa).
That the space previously held the iconic Upper East Side luxury cosmetic store Clyde’s is especially fitting, since the play is set in a future when every last woman has perished from the earth, but for one notably ugly, fat, and old one. The world we find ourselves in has lost its market for fancy cosmetics.
The play itself is remarkably prescient, as it depicts a world in which soda in consumed more than milk, the bees are dying, sex robots replace human connection, and a child wails as if he’s lost a leg when his computer is taken from him. (Remember, it’s 1969. Americans have just reached the moon, and no one has a laptop.)
But what’s all this in the face of these paintings? Carrington’s later works, which depict the spindly Surrealism common to a few other 20th century European expats in Mexico, are her words put on canvas. Most obvious is the egg which becomes central to the plot (as it is the last evidence that reproduction is possible), which could be seen looming over one of the actor’s shoulders in Quería ser pájaro from 1960, as well as in several other paintings.
So often an artist’s writing practice is a wan reflection of what they’re capable of in paint. Rarely is it supplemental to their art, and rarer still is it revelatory, as it is in Carrington’s case.* Certainly Carrington’s paintings can be loved and appreciated outside the context of her plays and novels (though indeed they are not exhibited nearly often enough to be loved to their fullest extent), but the play did not so much elucidate the action of the paintings (Carrington will always remain deliciously indecipherable), but rather achieved a different magic.
Since much of Carrington’s work confronts spirituality and myth in various forms, from the minotaur to depictions of Adam and Eve, it is easy to see these paintings as some sort of backdrop, the contextualization of ritual. The reading did not so much bring the works to life, but rather something of the opposite––it brought us into the works, in the way a baptism performed before the image of Christ in the River Jordan does not animate Jesus and John the Baptist, but rather sanctifies the water with which the baptism is done.
Last week in a vacated storefront on Madison Avenue we performed the ritual. And with it we became the minotaur, the circle of hooded priests, the clamoring group of devils presiding over the world’s demise.
Wendi Norris Offsite
Until June 29
*Longtime readers might note this is also true of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing, though hers is non-fiction.